Annie sits next to me. I address her softly, scanning the room like a spy in enemy territory.
“You started coming to this group after I did,” I say. “Tell me you’re not in on this.”
Annie shrugs. “I barely even understand what’s going on,” she says.
“Well, I think you might be Princess Leia,” I say, handing her the papers, “and these may be the Empire’s plans to rule the galaxy.”
“That’s my only copy,” Tooth says. “I need those back.”
I take Annie’s arm, and nod to the bucket. “Grab R2-D2.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Tooth says, standing. “Join me. It’s your destiny, Doug. Search your feelings.”
“Pull up your hood,” I say, pointing at Tooth’s black hoodie.
“Why?’ Tooth says.
“Humor me,” I say.
Tooth lifts the hood, draping it over his eyes. His gnarly tooth gives him a distinct look.
“The Emperor,” I say under my breath.
Patch pulls a futuristic looking gun out of a duffle bag by his chair. Maybe he’s just a stormtrooper. That would make sense – he’s no Vader.
“When are we going to get back to my paintball stories?” Patch says. He appears stunned as the gun starts rapid-fire shooting red paint balls into the cafeteria wall. The recoil causes the gun to jerk uncontrollably in Patch’s hand. It’s turning toward me and Annie when I reach for Plunger’s plunger. Pushing Annie behind me, I raise it before me like a light saber. As paint balls zip toward us, I wield the plunger with calm, precise strokes.
Apparently, the Force is not strong with me.
I don’t know what I was thinking. It’s a plunger, for God’s sake. Paint balls hammer and welt my chest until I can barely breathe. Whining like a sick puppy, I drop the plunger and grab Annie’s hand.
“RUN!” I say.
The paintball gun continues to blast pellets as we race out of the cafeteria. I can hear Patch apologizing behind us.
“I’m so sorry!” he’s yelling. “Don’t go! The trigger’s stuck. It does this sometimes!”
We speed down the hallway. Patch is close behind, still firing, with Tooth marching up the rear.
“It’s not me, it’s the gun!” Patch screams.
People from my Yellowstone trip appear in various classroom doorways as we pass. First it’s the boy scouts from Devil’s Tower.
“Ewoks!” I say, “or maybe Jawas.”
Then comes Stuart, the grotesquely ancient Laker fan who challenged me at Mastermind.
“Yoda!” I pronounce.
Next is Frank, his elephantine mass lying motionless on the floor as paramedics give him CPR.
“Jabba the Hutt!”
Then a woman in khaki shorts and a tank top.
“Who’s that?” Annie says.
“I had to do her laundry to watch game 2,” I say.
“No, I mean what Star Wars character is she?” Annie says.
“No idea,” I say.
“What about Natalie Portman?”
“Amidala?” I say, scoffing. “Don’t get me started on the prequels.”
In the middle of the hallway is an adult grizzly bear. It rises onto its hind legs, towering over us. Annie and I scream and clutch each other, waiting for something horrible to happen. It does not. The bear drops back down onto all fours and begins to sway, his eyes half open.
“This must be Chewbacca,” I say. “He’s on our side. Let’s go.”
I try to pull Annie forward, but she resists.
“Trust me,” I say.
As we pass with methodical slow motion baby steps, the bear sniffs us and paws at us gently.
“Are you sure this is Chewbacca?” Annie says, her arms clutched tightly to her chest.
“Could be a rancor, I guess,” I say, “but it would have eaten us by now.”
We get past the bear and it looses interest in us.
“Ha! I knew a rancor was too obscure,” I say as we pick up speed.
We reach the end of the hallway. All of the doors around us are locked.
“Dead end,” I say.
“What now?” Annie says.
Nothing’s coming to me.
“What would Larry Bird do?” I say aloud to myself.
“Screw that,” Annie says. “What would Princess Leia do?”
Annie tosses the softball plans into the bucket and drops her face into it.
“Tell me,” she says.
“Tell you what,” I say.
“Tell me about my daughter,” she says.
“Really?” I say. “You want to Brundlefly all over the plans? I’m not sure that’s what Princess Leia would do.”
“You’re wrong,” Annie says. “Leia would go to whatever lengths necessary to keep the plans from the Empire. Do it!”
I look down the hall. Patch and Tooth have made their way past the bear.
“Your daughter came in second!” I say. “She wasn’t good enough! She lost!”
Annie drops her face deep into the bucket. Retching noises echo in the plastic container as Patch and Tooth approach.
“Too late, boys,” I say. “Your plans are ruined, covered in gelatinous chunks of-” I turn to Annie. “What did you eat for dinner?”
“Chicken marsala and rice,” she says.
“Eeew, chicken marsala and rice,” I say. “Too bad. So sad. Buh-bye.”
Tooth reaches into the bucket and pulls out the papers. They are clean and dry.
“Wha-?” I look into the empty bucket, then at Annie. She smiles like victory itself.
“Are you on the Dark Side too?” I say.
“No,” Annie says, beaming. “I’m cured.”
“Well, perfect time for that,” I say.
“Enough,” Tooth says, stuffing the plans into his pant pocket. “What’s it gonna be, Doug? Will you join us?”
“You know, you’ve never even asked if I’m any good at softball,” I say.
Lowering his hood, Tooth steps toward me and places a hand on my shoulder.
“Do you have any idea what it’s like trying to assemble a team from a church congregation?” he says.
I shake my head.
“My shortstop is 72 years old,” Tooth says. “He uses a cane…while he’s out in the field. My second basewoman has short term memory loss. If by some miracle she catches a grounder, she doesn’t remember what to do with it. My catcher has one eye.”
“Easy now,” Patch says. “I’m your best player.”
“Precisely,” Tooth says. “Doug, I never asked you if you played softball because it doesn’t matter. I can use you. Trust me.”
I ponder, then look at Annie, who hasn’t stopped grinning. She’s still thrilled she didn’t vomit.
“What do you think?” I say.
“Depends on who you wanna be,” she says. “Luke or Anakin. Hey, wasn’t Anakin’s nickname Annie?”
“Again with the prequels,” I say. “Yes, his nickname was Annie.” I look to Tooth. “Who comes up with that? Darth Vader being Annie? Did they call Hannibal Lecter Hannie?”
Patch chimes in. “I think Leia called Han Solo that once, didn’t she?”
Tooth raises a calm hand at Patch – very Emperor-like. The sudden silence is palpable.
“Enough. No more stalling, Doug,” Tooth says. “Will you join us?”
I gaze back down the long hallway. The bear is sleeping. Frank is on a gurney flanked by paramedics, but is sitting up waiting for my answer. Stuart is there, inexplicably eating Scrabble tiles. The boy scouts are each holding pieces of rope and making knots – must be a badge day. Jeb is there, looking on. He kneels and folds his hands in prayer.
Tooth gives it one last try.
“Think about it, Doug,” he says, gravelly seduction in his voice. “You’ll be the most talented player on a team of misfits.”
“Hey,” Patch says.
Tooth revises his statement. “You’ll be the most talented two-eyed player on a team of misfits,” he says. “When you speak, people will listen – assuming they can actually hear you. When you make a great play, it will be that much more amazing against the backdrop of widespread incompetence. You’ll be a star, Doug. As much as a man can shine in the face of difficult circumstances, you will.”
Impressed, Annie looks at me.
“Damn, now I wanna play,” she says.